A woman who falsely claimed to be a Buddhist nun to gain asylum in the United States pleaded guilty yesterday in federal court in Alexandria to misusing a passport.
In March, a federal grand jury indicted Sonam Chodon, 31, on charges of passport fraud, document fraud and perjury. Investigators said she used a fake passport to enter the United States in 2003 and concocted the story that she was a nun as part of a bid to gain refuge from what she said was persecution by China in her homeland.
Yesterday, in exchange for Chodon's plea, prosecutors agreed to dismiss four of the five charges against her. Chodon faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 when she is sentenced Sept. 30. She remains free on bond.
At the time of her arrival into the United States from Tibet, Chodon was detained in a central Virginia jail. She described going to a nunnery in Nepal where she said she shaved her head and rose at 5 a.m. to recite prayers, telling an immigration judge, "I'm just a simple Buddhist nun."
In an interview last year with The Washington Post, Chodon described growing up in a Tibetan village near Mount Everest and said her father was jailed and tortured by Chinese officials. Her story included her flight across the mountains to Nepal where she said she was admitted into a nunnery.
Although her claims of abuse won her sympathy from human rights advocates and a U.S. congressman, government officials said Chodon's tale couldn't have been further from the truth.
Federal agents said that they traveled to Nepal, where they showed Chodon's picture at the nunnery where she allegedly stayed, and that no one could identify her.
According to court documents, Chodon entered the United States using a Nepalese passport in the name of Kami Renjin Sherpa, which contained a visa issued to religious workers.
"In fact, Sonam Chodon had never been ordained a nun," said the statement of facts presented in court.
Federal agents said they learned that Chodon was part of a passport fraud ring. Her case, they said, underscores the danger posed by terrorists who have exploited immigration law.
Allan J. Doody, special agent in charge of the Washington field office for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, "we're rigorously investigating all asylum claims, even those that appear outwardly sympathetic. It's important to the integrity of the immigration system. . . . We'll do what we have to do to determine whether the claims are legitimate, including traveling to a place like Nepal to interview witnesses."
Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.